Malerkotla

Post 60, Beeja

1 p.m.: Shailendra visits me in my room. He tells me he returned to Beeja yesterday, after spending a few rather productive weeks in Sargana. Having completed work on the temple, Shailendra informs me that he operated a thresher for a farmer near his home, by the canal in Sargana. He worked for ten-odd days and received 25 kilos each day as wages! Before his departure, Shailendra has applied for a loan to help him purchase a tractor. If this works out and he is able to purchase one, he will lend it to local farmers during their agricultural operations.

Shailendra does not want to work in construction any more. His wife Sunita thinks it too dangerous, and would like him to take up some other employment, preferably in a factory. He has struck an acquaintance with one of Damodar’s neighbours, who is a supervisor in a factory near Delhi. The factory manufactures the packaging in which electric meters are stored when being sold. He wants to work there for at least a year so he can master some skills, he says.

“They will pay me INR 8000 per month. In addition, I will get a place to stay in the factory complex,” he adds.  

Work in Barmalipur is yet to commence, Shailendra adds. The jobs in Malerkotla have been assigned to others, leaving Shailendra without any employment at the moment. He hopes to receive a call for work from a contact in Khanna.

Shailendra expresses further worries. In the aftermath of demonetisation, when cash was scarce, he and his cousins had approached one of the many currency exchange entrepreneurs who mushroomed during that period. Queues in banks had been too long and standing in those queues would have meant the loss of at least a day’s wages. They had then deposited INR 36,000 in the old high-denomination currency notes and received from the entrepreneur two cheques of equivalent value, which they thought they could easily deposit in the bank.

However, the cheques have bounced. Shailendra hopes to confront the entrepreneur and have him return his money. But he has discovered, much to his consternation, that the entrepreneur and his enterprise have both vanished.

Post 57, Ludhiana/Jammu/Araria

10:00 a.m.: Shailendra tells me on the phone that he is working at a construction site approximately three kilometres south of Sargana. He is part of a team of workers building a temple. While Shailendra does not know the name of the employer, he tells me he was ‘placed’ there by Damodar Rajak, the labour contractor who allocated him to constructing gurudwaras in Ludhiana.

Shailendra tells me that the project on which he was working in Barmalipur remains incomplete. Moreover, he has yet to be paid for 20 days of labour he had put into building the dome and the screens: the arrears to him amount to INR 32,000.

Shailendra will not stay in Sargana for long, he tells me. He plans to leave for Malerkotla after Holi, which this year is scheduled to be celebrated on March 12/ 13.

12 noon: I chat with Damodar Rajak, who is currently in Sargana. Damodar complains that demonetisation hit the construction market really hard, leaving builders with little capital with which to either purchase materials or pay their workers. All his worksites in and around Ludhiana have had to be abandoned, although he hopes to be able to bag a contract for supplying labourers to Malerkotla.

1 p.m.: Pradeep informs me that his son Sundar, who is currently in Sargana, has delayed his return to Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of returning by the end of February, as he had initially planned, he will now return after Holi in mid-March. Pradeep himself hopes to finish the work on the church within a few days and proceed to Jammu.

Post 31, Nabha Market and Hiyana Kalan, Patiala

1 p.m.: Shailendra has come to Nabha Market in Patiala (some 70 kilometers from east of Barmalipur) to purchase switches for his cutter. He has grown a beard, since he has not had the time to get to a barber. He and his co-workers have just arrived from Malerkotla (about 15 kilometres south of Barmalipur), where they had gone to help construct the roof of a gurdwara: their friend Sandeep had requested for some help. That work complete, now Shailendra and his co-workers plan to spend a few days in Patiala where they will work to install a gate for a gurdwara in the town’s Hiyana Kalan locality.

2 p.m.: We board a tempo headed towards Hiyana Kalan. It takes us an hour to get to the gurdwara whose gates Shailendra and his co-workers will be making.

3 p.m.: Shailendra’s co-workers are already at the gurdwara, having arrived there directly from Malerkotla. Two of his cousins, who had travelled with him to Balmaripur in May, are here. Two other friends from Sargana have joined them. One of them, Charandev Rishi, had joined the team at Bija last month and travelled with them here. The second, Santosh RIshi, had accompanied a group of workers headed to Hissar in Haryana State to construct canals. However, their contractor, an acquaintance from the neighbouring Roshanar village, paid them too little.  Santosh left the group and went to work with Pradeep in Jammu. But he could not withstand the altitude of the place: it made him unwell, especially while traveling. So, he returned to Sargana. When Sundar, Shailendra’s cousin was travelling to Ludhiana earlier in September, Santosh decided to join him. Since then, he has been working alongside Shailendra and his friends on the Barmalipur gurdwara, and travelled with them to Paitala.

Sundar has stayed back in Barmalipur.

3:30 p.m.: The caretaker of the gurdwara serves us chapatis (unleavened flatbread) with sarson ka saag (mustard greens and spices). He comments that the locals know only how to build houses, and therefore have to import labour to build gurdwaras. Indeed, local Sikhs show very little interest in gurdwaras, he complains. All they care about are Radha Soami (a Hindu sect) devotional gatherings.

4:00 p.m.: Lunch done, we sit around and immerse ourselves in our respective mobile phones. Shailendra watches a bit of his favourite movie, listens to some Bhojpuri songs and talks to his wife and daughter.